Gordon Davidson

A REPORT into the viability and sustainability of introducing mobile abattoirs to Scotland has identified a number of operational models that would attract broad stakeholder support and are therefore worthy of further investigation.

The issue of abattoir provision, although often very far from the public spotlight, is a crucial one for the sustainable, high welfare credentials that the Scottish livestock industry hopes can see it through the current political squeeze on meat consumption.

Smale-scale local abattoirs were once the norm, but the dual pressures of supermarket upscaling and food hygiene legislation requiring on-site veterinary supervision have rendered many businesses unviable over the last few decades, with the result that stock is having to travel further and further to reach the food chain.

This loss of distributed slaughter capacity now runs counter to moves towards low-mileage local food, and the kind of differentiation of high quality local produce that holds out hope of decent returns for farmers living in remote areas – which is why the Scottish Government commissioned research into the modern mobile abattoirs now operating elsewhere in Europe, and how they might fit with Scotland's industry structure.

While one Scandinavian version is based more-or-less on an adapted articulated lorry that rolls onto individual farms, so that stock may be slaughtered in situ with the absolute minimum of disruption and stress, the report found more Scottish support for the idea of 'docking hubs' – pre-existing local facilities like livestock auction marts that already had the necessary infrastructure in place, like lairage facilities for animals, and drainage and storage capability for effluents, that could host a mobile abattoir unit on a regular basis.

"Stakeholder engagement has identified significant interest and demand for a Mobile Slaughter Unit service," said the report. "However, this should also be interpreted as support for a local abattoir service, regardless of whether it is mobile or fixed. This support has been expressed by crofters, smallholders and farmers.

"More than 600 individuals responded to an online survey advertised in a number of relevant journals, with more than 90% of respondents indicating that they would support and use an MSU service. The principle reasons given were related to animal welfare (reducing the haulage distances) and the desire to create more local meat sales businesses/ opportunities.

"Members of Scottish Craft Butchers also completed an online survey, with a significant majority expressing their support for MSUs. For a future service the interest and participating of butchering businesses will be instrumental to its future success."

Local provenance campaigner, Ruth Watson of Keep Scotland the Brand, said that the report gave 'cause for optimism'.

"For years we have watched the decline of slaughterhouse provision across Scotland with the impact this is having on the viability of local producers, disproportionately affecting small-scale farming enterprises," said Ms Watson. "Reducing the distance livestock have to travel for slaughter and eliminating as much stress as is possible during the process is significant for animal welfare.

"As expected, one of the reasons farmers, crofters, smallholders, and producers are keen to see local facilities is to improve the provenance of the food produced at the end of the process. 91% of respondents say clear local food labels are good for business. Since Kirkwall lost its abattoir the Orkney Product of Designated Origin has been unavailable to local producers with the loss of the value-added income the 'Orkney Gold' provenance generates," she noted.

"The Scottish Government has an opportunity to make a significant difference to the viability of businesses in our rural communities and to the wellbeing of the animals they farm. I am pleased to see so much work is being done to explore innovative ways of supporting Scottish rural and farming sectors and strengthening Scotland's important brand at home and abroad."

For in-depth news and views on Scottish agriculture, see this Friday’s issue of The Scottish Farmer or visit www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk